Amid all the talk about “hate speech” and the “rhetoric of violence” in the aftermath of the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), here are some thoughts about the kind of speech that could promote civil society.

First is testimony.

Testimony is talk that tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It offers an open and honest account of understanding and experience. Honest speech promotes trust and good will within society. It treats all others with dignity and respect and thereby preserves peace and tranquility.

Recognizing that all humans are fallible and that all experience is perspectival, honest speakers will welcome sincere efforts to correct, verify or seek corroboration for the veracity of their testimony.

Second is critique.

Critique is the voice of convicted civility. It promotes civility by confronting error conscientiously and preserves society by refusing to remain silent in the face of injustice.

Conscientious, constructive critique is correction that is offered discreetly, with humility and without impugning the dignity and integrity of the other. It gives others the benefit of a doubt, is reticent to ascribe unworthy motives to others, and is careful to examine one’s own self and perspective through the eyes of the other.

Third is teaching.

Teaching is speech that opens the mind. Teachers speak with the authority of wisdom and experience. They continually search for deeper forms of analysis, broader perspectives and a more complete understanding of truth. They seek to instill within the student a passion to search for truth and understanding. Teachers share the skills and abilities necessary to analyze experience, evaluate or correlate alternate viewpoints, and develop new forms of speech and expression.

This form of speech promotes civility by increasing understanding and tolerance. It preserves peace within society by encouraging respect for the stranger and by opening lines of communication to the foreigner.

Fourth is dialogue.

Dialogue is open, honest and respectful conversation between two or more people. It is talk with another listening. It is talk that genuinely listens to others.

Dialogue is essential to democratic societies. Governing by naked power and force is tyrannical. Power is controlled by dialogue and open discussion in democratic societies. Open discussion requires those in authority to declare their positions and debate alternatives openly.

The “common good” of society emerges as the “general will” of the people and is formed by the dialectic of opinions and ideas, which are themselves produced by respectful dialogue and open discussion.

The “general will” of the majority must also be exercised with humility. Pluralistic democracy protects the rights of minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Foremost among the rights protecting minorities are those associated with liberty of conscience – the rights to religious liberty, freedom of speech, press, peaceful assembly and petition to the government.

These rights of conscience assure that civil dialogue and discussion will always contain the element of critique that can promote advances toward a more equitable, just and humane society.

We need more testimony, critique, teaching and dialogue – a lot more.

Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, president of the Norman, Okla., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and host of “Religious Talk” on KREF radio. He blogs at Mainstream Baptist.

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